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Investigation into MI5 torture allegations could jeopardise national security
07-18-2009, 11:39 AM,
Investigation into MI5 torture allegations could jeopardise national security
Quote:Alan Johnson revealed his concerns after studying the secret files on the decision to refer the case to Scotland Yard.

In an interview with the Telegraph he vows to "defend" the agents of the Security Service and said he had "nothing but admiration for them".

"I haven't sat around the last six weeks not looking into these things," he says. "I have looked very closely at them and I just say this: we have one of the best counter-terrorism capabilities in the world and we diminish and dilute it at our peril."

The Home Secretary's public endorsement of MI5 and its staff follows the decision by the Metropolitan Police to accept a request from the Attorney General for the first ever criminal inquiry into the domestic security service.

Binyam Mohamed, the former Guantanamo detainee, claims MI5 knew he was tortured into confessing his terrorist activities while in American custody.

Although Mr Johnson's advisers said he had no powers to intervene in a judicial process, his comments will be read as clear evidence of growing unease in Whitehall about implications for national security.

As the minister in charge of both the police and the Security Service, his intervention will carry significant political weight.

It will be welcomed by the intelligence agencies, where there is concern that public confidence in their work has been damaged by allegations that officers may have colluded in the torture of terror suspects.

Mr Johnson, who took over at the Home Office six weeks ago, said: "In my six weeks in this job I am so reassured and so amazed at the work that is going on on our behalf by people who do not have a voice, who are not able to express their views, who work in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances.

"I have nothing but admiration for them. As I am in effect their voice I will defend them and defend what they do and it does worry me. I believe they work to the highest ethical and professional standards."

Senior officials at both MI5 and MI6 have voiced private concern that legal action against serving agents could damage Britain's credibility internationally and put intelligence sharing agreements with other countries under threat.

The two agencies insist their officials have at all times worked within the law, and deny suggestions that they were involved in the unethical treatment of prisoners.

Whitehall sources say intelligence gathered by interrogating detainees has proved invaluable in preventing terror attacks.

A spokesman for Mr Johnson said he had no plans to intervene in the case because he had no constitutional grounds to do so.

"Everyone is equal before the law. There cannot be exceptions for these intelligence officers. He does not have the power to intervene. But he wants the public to know that they operate to the highest standards. If charges are brought we will deal with them as they come up," he said.

Before he left office Tony Blair intervened on national security grounds to stop an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into allegations of bribery in arms deals with Saudi Arabia after the kingdom's government threatened to block future cooperation.

Scotland Yard agreed to investigate Mohamed's allegations after a request from the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland QC. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, the Met's head of organised crime, is leading the investigation.

Moghamed, 30, is an Ethiopian refuge who worked as a caretaker at a mosque in West London. He was arrested trying to leave Pakistan with a false passport in April 2002 and subjected to "extraordinary rendition" to Morocco. He was then taken to a "dark prison" run by the Americans in Afghanistan and then to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

He claims MI5 officers knew he was being tortured and fed questions to his interrogators through the CIA. The Government denies the charge.

Mr Johnson could intervene by preventing key evidence being heard in court.

Lawyers said that the Home Secretary could issue Public Interest Immunity certificates to stop sensitive information being heard in court - and potentially derailing the case.

If he believes that national security could be compromised he could sign a certificate and submit it in court. However it will be for the judge hearing the case to decide whether the evidence can be heard in front of the jury.

Julian Young, a leading solicitor, said the judge would have to weigh up the interests of the state in suppressing evidence with that of the defendant to a fair trial.

He said: "It will be for the judge to keep it under review at all time."

Mr Johnson would have no power to intervene in the police investigation however, nor in the decision by the Crown Prosecution Service about whether to bring charges.

Louis Charambalous, a partner at Simons, Muirhead & Burton, added that Mr Johnson "ought not to" get involved in the criminal investigation because constitutionally he represents the executive.

However in practice, he was free to make public comments about the investigation which could, however unintentionally, bring more pressure on the officers carrying out the police investigation.
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