Page last updated at 18:06 GMT, Friday, 12 February 2010

Home secretary defends MI5 on Binyam Mohamed claims

Alan Johnson said it was right to keep some information from the public

Home Secretary Alan Johnson has attacked media coverage of the Binyam Mohamed case, saying "ludicrous lies" were being told about MI5.

The Court of Appeal ordered the government to reveal what MI5 knew about Mr Mohamed's mistreatment when he was held by the CIA in Pakistan.

Mr Johnson said MI5 neither practised nor condoned torture or mistreatment.

Earlier MI5's chief denied any "cover-up", insisting the security service respected human rights and the law.

Mr Johnson stepped into the row after two days of headlines and suggestions MI5 had attempted to cover up Mr Mohamed's torture.

We are an accountable public organisation and take our legal and oversight responsibilities seriously
MI5 director general Jonathan Evans

On Wednesday, the most senior appeal court judges in England and Wales released a summary of what MI5 had known of Mr Mohamed's treatment, based on documents security officials in Washington secretly shared with their London counterparts.

On the same day, it emerged the leading government barrister had lobbied the judges to change one paragraph of their draft judgement, which he said was "exceptionally damaging" to MI5's reputation.

But speaking to the BBC on Friday, Mr Johnson said allegations MI5 had orchestrated a transatlantic cover-up of what it knew about Mr Mohamed's treatment were a "ludicrous lie".

"The security services in our country do not practice torture," said Mr Johnson.

"They do not endorse torture, they do not encourage others to torture on our behalf, they do not collude in torture, full stop.

"It's a free society, and that's actually what the security services are out there to protect. But occasionally they have to actually argue back. They can't allow that kind of misrepresentation to carry on un-thwarted."

Mr Johnson attacked former shadow home secretary David Davis and other critics of MI5, whom he said had been making up false allegations.

Lobbying letter

But Clare Algar, executive director of Reprieve, which represents Binyam Mohamed, said: "It's incredibly offensive to suggest that the people who are bringing to light the ways in which the British intelligence service and US intelligence service have behaved badly could be responsible for giving succour to the enemy.

Binyam Mohamed
April 2002: Mistreated by US and Pakistani interrogators - arrested in Pakistan over visa irregularities and handed to US authorities as suspected terrorist
May 2002: Washington gives British security officials details of treatment - interviewed by MI5 officers sent from London
July 2002: Flown to Morocco and tortured for 18 months - says his interrogators received questions from London
January 2004: Transferred to Afghanistan and questioned by US agents
September 2004: Taken to Guantanamo Bay - lawyers demand British documents to prove confession extracted during abuse
October 2008: All charges against him dropped
February 2009: Returns to UK and continues fight for release of secret information

"The thing that gives succour to the enemy is the bad behaviour in the first place - and that's the reason we shouldn't be involved in torturing people."

The row over what MI5 knew has grown since the judgement, following the emergence of a letter to the judges from Jonathan Sumption QC.

Mr Sumption, who represented the government during the court case, objected to a specific part of the judgement written by Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls and second most senior judge in England and Wales.

The barrister said Lord Neuberger's paragraph was "exceptionally damaging" because it left the impression MI5 did not have a culture of respecting human rights and did not object to "coercive interrogation techniques".

He said the words could be interpreted as meaning that MI5 had also misled the Intelligence and Security Committee.

The disputed paragraph does not appear in the final judgement and has not been released by the court. But Channel 4 News said on Thursday it had related to US documents concerning Mr Mohamed's treatment, which MI5 had allegedly failed to disclose to the committee.

Mr Johnson's intervention came after MI5 director general Jonathan Evans wrote an unprecedented rebuttal in the Daily Telegraph newspaper on Friday, denying the allegation the security service did not respect human rights and the law.

Mr Evans said that his officers had never misled parliamentarians and operated within the law.

He said claims of a "culture of suppression" at the heart of the security service were "the precise opposite of the truth".

"People who choose to work in the service do so because they want to protect the UK and its liberties," wrote Mr Evans.

"We are an accountable public organisation and take our legal and oversight responsibilities seriously.

"The material our critics are drawing on to attack us is taken from our own records, not prised from us by some external process but willingly provided by us to the court, in the normal way. No cover-up there."

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