“Ignorance is no excuse in law”. I must have heard this saying a thousands times, usually in reference to some poor sod who has committed a crime without knowing it; maybe receiving an item they did not know was stolen and facing a fine heftier than the scally that nicked it, or fined for some traffic offence they were oblivious of.
I was reminded of this saying when reading Martin Bright’s article “Rendition: The cover up" in the current issue of New Statesman, and a piece referred to by Nick Cohen in a section headed “Hear no evil, see no evil” today’s Observer.
The New Statesman made much use of a secret memo, downloadable from the New Statesman site. In a nutshell, as Tony Blair geared himself up to face Commons questions about British participation in extraordinary rendition in early December, his officials asked the Foreign Office for a briefing document. The consequent memo, signed by Irfan Siddiq, a private secretary at the Foreign Office, and addressed to Grace Cassy, assistant private secretary at No 10 Downing Street, reveals a government with its head up its arse.
While the FO concedes that extraordinary rendition “is almost certainly illegal” (“almost?) and that were the government to co-operate in it “such an act would also be illegal,” the FO, quite simply does not know if this has actually happened.
The memo ask the key question: "How do we know whether those our armed forces have helped to capture in Iraq or Afghanistan have subsequently been sent to interrogation centres?" And the answer offered is: “Cabinet Office is researching this with the MOD. But we understand the basic answer is that we have no mechanism for establishing this, though we would not ourselves question such detainees while they were in such facilities.’"
Further on, aware that the law may have been broken, anticipating the grilling Blair will get in the Commons when it is realised he is totally oblivious of CIA extraordinary rendition flights and whether Britain knew about them the Foreign Office counsels Blair on how to handle the matter:
“We should also try to bring out the other side of the balance…the need to balance the rights of the suspected terrorist against those of the potential victim.
“We think we should now try to move the debate on from the specifics of rendition…and focus people instead on Rice’s clear assurance that all US activities are consistent with their domestic and international obligations and never include the use of torture.”
That every other European government almost pissed itself laughing when Condoleezza Rice – during her recent damage limitation tour of Europe – told them the US is not into torturing suspects seems to have passed the FO by.
I somehow doubt the government will be able to move the debate on and fob us off with whatever Washington wants us to believe, Not least because further revelations of CIA renditions flights via Britain are continuing to emerge and because the chief of Greater Manchester Police has launched a criminal investigation and parliamentary groups are looking deeper into the issue.
I can’t help but agree with Nick Cohen who, referring to the way New Labour survives such scandals, says:
“Tony Blair escapes because enemies always hit him with the wrong charge. This scandal is not about what the government does know but has covered up, but what the government doesn't know but should.”
Too bloody true. “Ignorance is no excuse, m’lud. The Jury finds the defendant guilty and therefore advises that a hearing date be set to prosecute the prime minister and his Cabinet.”