Monthly Archives: December 2014

Torture Report: It’s Not Just The CIA, But A Global & Structural Problem

cia hong kong uk rendition

54 countries were complicit in CIA rendition…and Hong Kong makes 55.

In the light of the Senate Committee’s Torture Report, we’re all keen to criticise the CIA. But 54 countries were involved in rendition and torture, and they all need to come clean about their involvement. The problem was global. The US may have exported torture just like the British Empire once exported its questionable values, but the States which worked with the CIA were not occupied by the US. They chose to. In the cases of UK-US rendition to Libya, the CIA’s role was actually minimal.

An outspoken Libyan dissident, Sami Al-Saadi, was forced to flee from country to country to avoid Gaddafi’s agents. He and his family were given temporary leave to remain in Britain but after a few years living in London and hiding their identities, they had to flee to China were they lived for a while. The family ended up detained in Hong Kong for immigration issues. In 2002 Tony Blair decided to make a deal with Gaddafi that Britain would get gas from Libya and Gaddafi wouldn’t develop chemical weapons. As part of this deal, the Al-Saadi family was to be renditioned to Libya. Though the CIA later decided to help by providing a plane, this was a UK plot and not a CIA-instigated rendition. The UK government wrote to Libyan officials that they had provided the intel (on the family’s location) even though they hadn’t paid for the plane, which shows they were eager to take credit for the rendition. The entire family, including children aged 4 to 12, were put on a plane in Hong Kong and flown to Libya where the entire family was imprisoned for months and their father tortured for six years. Fearing that the US would attempt a cover-up, in August 2014 the oldest daughter expressed hope that this CIA torture report would reveal the truth about her rendition. What she didn’t realise was that it wouldn’t be a US cover-up, but a UK one-the UK asked the Senate not to include references to UK agencies, so her family’s rendition was omitted from the report.

This rendition was not instigated by the CIA, but by Tony Blair. The CIA can’t be blamed as much as Britain and Hong Kong because the State which hands over the family, thereby enabling the rendition, is most culpable. That state was Hong Kong. The State which planned and negotiated the rendition is also culpable, and that was Britain. The US was complicit but they weren’t the main instigators.

According to The Guardian, terror suspect Abu Munthir was detained in Hong Kong before he and his family were renditioned to Gaddafi’s Libya in 2004, just two years after the rendition of the Al-Saadis. Hong Kong agreed to the operation, their only conditions being that the US would contribute toward plane costs and the plane would be registered in a third country. This means that, as the family were then in Hong Kong detention, it was Hong Kong who handed over the family to Libya, and not the US or UK. If Hong Kong hadn’t renditioned the family, the UK and US wouldn’t have been able to perform a rendition (at least not without first breaking the family out of the detention facility). The UK has rightly been criticised for providing logistical support and intelligence in the 2 Libyan renditions, and for routinely allowing the CIA to use British airspace and refuel while doing renditions. But Hong Kong has done exactly the same thing- it’s allowed a use of airspace and also done a handover of an entire family to Libyan agents.

The Guardian says “The Hong Kong authorities were also insisting that the Libyans offer an assurance that the family’s human rights would be respected”. That might sound good, but in reality the Hong Kong government (and ours, and the US) were turning a blind eye to the fact that they were sending someone off to be tortured. You’d have to be very gullible to take a brutal mass-murdering dictator like Gaddafi at his word. And if there’s one thing governments aren’t, it’s naive. They knew what they were doing, even if they were trying to convince themselves that Gaddafi would honour his promise, even when the family were completely in his control and no other State would know what he was doing to them.

What is of concern here is that while the US has an investigation into CIA torture and rendition, and the UK is having a police investigation over the Libya renditions, Hong Kong has yet to make any attempt to address its role in these same two Libya renditions.

So, while we need to demand the prosecution of CIA torturers and the architects of the torture program- including psychologists, politicians, soldiers and everyone who made it possible- we should be scrutinising other countries, too. Hong Kong had a starring role in both the UK renditions- in fact, without Hong Kong’s actions, there would have been no UK-Libya renditions. And seeing as both renditions were to Libya and involved the UK, that might suggest a much closer working relationship existed between Hong Kong and Libya (and/or Britain) than is currently known.

We also need to take the sole focus off the CIA and ask how much Bush and other lawmakers knew. Though the report suggests the CIA hid the extent of their torture program from everyone else in government, Bush knew something. Why should he escape jail if all the other culprits are prosecuted? He was the head of state, and it’s a standard principle for the boss to take responsibility for employee misconduct. The issue of whether government agencies can refuse the orders of a President is a complex issue, dependant on US law and CIA policy, but the question of whether being a head of state grants you immunity is not. And the same applies to Tony Blair. Without his decision to use the Al-Saadi family as collateral damage for his Deal In The Desert, MI6 wouldn’t have renditioned the family. So why are the police only investigating MI6 and letting Blair get off scot-free? Surely the main culprit shouldn’t escape justice if his accomplices (who were subject to Blair’s pressure and possibly legally obligated to do what he says) can’t?

The Torture Report is a great start, but we need to avoid focusing on the CIA’s crimes to the extent that we forget the bigger national and global crimes, and the fact that spy agencies are being led into crime by psychologists and heads of state. The Torture Report raises a lot of issues about individuals being given too much power over organisations, the trust we give to psychologists, the way civilians can influence intelligence agencies, the relationships between lawmakers and spy agencies, the power of media and activists, and the amount of scrutiny we have over our government. If we don’t want a global superpower infecting our planet with torture-as-neocolonialism, and if we don’t want business-savvy members of the public and individual politicians to lead our governments astray, then laws, policies and the structure of relationships between agencies will have to change.

This is not just a problem with the CIA. It’s a problem with the whole system of how governments operate and how influential or not the media and human rights activists are. It’s not even just an American problem. It’s a global problem. It’s a problem which includes ingroup belonging, a form of mob psychology, and similar issues. The CIA agents and US soldiers didn’t wake up one day and be like, “OK, I’m gonna get my evil on!” Some of them really thought they were doing the right thing, while others, according to media reports, were uncomfortable but felt they had to go along with it. So, despite its inhumanity, it is a very human problem.

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How I got the DWP to release “commercially sensitive info” (admit how much they pay Ingeus)

dwpfoi

When I asked the DWP how much they paid Work Programme companies, they rejected my request 4 times. The last time was on the grounds that this information could not be released because it was “commercially sensitive”. This is obviously a completely inappropriate attempt to subvert transparency and the Freedom of Information Act.  It also suggests that the DWP are aware that they are paying Ingeus too much, or why try to hide it? I thought that making an appeal/internal review wouldn’t make them change their minds, but I did it anyway and surprisingly it worked. (I reckon they didn’t want me publicising the fact that they were refusing to admit how much they were paying.)

It all started when I was gathering info for what would eventually become this article on Mint Press News about corporations raking in hundreds of millions from DWP contracts in a system which not only favours huge companies, but actually demands a £20m turnover to be awarded the best contracts.

It was a fun couple of weeks. I set up a fake company and became a Partner with one of the largest Work Programme Providers. I called another DWP contractor and got tons of dirt in less than 15 minutes. It wasn’t all easy street, though- there were sources who refused to speak to me and companies which, even when they told the truth, still managed to conceal how they were earning all this money (it’s less straightforward than you’d think, because a lot of the money is in helping smaller companies get DWP contracts, so a company might pull in millions from exploiting the unemployed while being paid nothing by the DWP).

So you might think that making a FOI request to the DWP would be the easiest thing of all. No getting people to talk, no tracking down people who’d done business with/worked for the companies, no getting creative with the truth about the story you’re writing and hoping they won’t work it out from the questions you’re asking (they never do). But the DWP was determined to conceal the very straightforward answer to the question “How much were [work programme companies] paid in 2013 and so far in 2014?” (They’d already rejected two previous requests for allegedly being too expensive to investigate, so with these last two, I put one company’s name in each request instead of a few in one request).

This is what the DWP said:

“I can confirm that the Department holds the information you are seeking.

However, the information you have requested is commercially sensitive and is therefore exempt from release under Section 43 of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Section 43 exemption is applied on the basis that this information is commercially sensitive and release of the financial information would prejudice the interests of our suppliers and/or undermine the effectiveness of the Department’s future dealings with our service providers which is not in the public interest.

It would reveal to our suppliers competitors commercially sensitive financial aspects which would disadvantage there [sic] competitive position in the marketplace. This in turn would prejudice the ability of the Department to secure best value for the taxpayer when the contract is re-tendered.”

It could’ve been worse. At least they didn’t say the information has to be censored on grounds of public morals and national security, like China did when it banned a book.

My appeal

This was my appeal against the DWP’s decision. It was upheld and the figures were released. I’m actually really surprised it was successful.

“[…] However, this information would not reveal “commercially sensitive” information to these companies’ competitors, for the following five reasons:

1) The amount that Atos and Maximus were paid by the DWP is already in the public domain. An example is here (Atos): http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/mar/27/atos-contract-end-relief-campaigners and here (Maximus): http://www.welfareweekly.com/news-brief-dwp-award-500-million-fit-work-contract-u-s-firm-maximus/

Many more web hits exist, as you can see yourself by doing a Google search.

2) The information asked for will not “disadvantage their competitive position in the marketplace” because knowing how much a competitor is paid will not help a company compete. This information is only a figure or end result, it’s not a corporate secret such as a recipe etc which, once known, could be mass-produced by all competitors. Saying this information would disadvantage competitors is like saying that, because I know how much salary a Guardian war reporter makes, that knowledge would make me a really good journalist and I’d get that job.

3) Even if knowing a competitor’s turnover or salary does magically give companies and self-employed people the knowledge of how to improve their product, service, method of production or operations, the public interest still outweighs the issue of the DWP securing best value in tenders.

4) The issue of the DWP securing best value for taxpayers in the re-tender is unimportant, as the DWP has already wasted millions of taxpayers’ money on Work Programme companies, Jobcentre sessions, Universal Jobmatch, and other pointless activities which don’t create more jobs so don’t actually help anyone get back into work:

The DWP pays Work Programme providers 10 million to 50 million a year, and there are over 40 such providers: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/herald-view/still-much-to-do-to-make-this-programme-work.21973283 . Even if we pretend that every single WPP was only paid 10 million- not 10 to 50 million- that’s still 40 million. On top of that, contractors were overpaid by 25 million: http://www.supplymanagement.com/news/2014/work-programme-could-overpay-contractors-by-ps25-million-says-nao and, further, DWP paid 31 million this year to underperforming contractors, and in future the figure will be 61 million:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/07/01/welfare-to-work-scheme-million-in-taxpayers-money-being-paid-to-underperforming-contractors_n_5549015.html

DWP paid Monster 17 million to unnecessarily create Universal Jobmatch when plenty of job search sites exist, then decided to axe it because it was not working: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/herald-view/still-much-to-do-to-make-this-programme-work.21973283

40m + 25m + 31m + 17m = 111 million, and that’s already a figure which I’ve twisted to be misleadingly lower than it really is (by pretending DWP only pays 10m to each contractor, instead of the factual figure of 10-50m).

Therefore, if the cost to the taxpayer of not securing the best value tender is less than £111m, the information I request should be given.

5) Encouraging competition is good for the economy and is integral to a free market. Competition (assuming it could be achieved by telling companies what their competitors were paid, which it can’t) would not affect DWP securing best value tenders.

Thank you for your attention in this internal review request.”

DWP gives it up

And they responded:

“[…] As a result of this review

I find that the original decision was not correct and as such your request for review is upheld.

The information that you request is that DWP paid Ingeus approx. £160m for the financial year 2013/14 (April 2013 to March 2014) and approx. £80m for the period April 2014 to October 2014.”

However we still don’t have figures for A4e, Remploy, Working Links, Seetec and others (because if I put more than two companies in a request, the DWP rejects it for being too expensive to investigate…we gotta do this one by one). So, next time you’re feeling bored…

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