UK officials tolerated 'inexcusable' abuse of US detainees, report finds

The MI6 building in London.

London (CNN)UK lawmakers have delivered a stark assessment of the conduct of British spies and their US allies in the decade after 9/11, concluding it was "inexcusable" that UK security officials participated in or tolerated the freewheeling counter-terror practices of the time, like detainee abuse or extraordinary rendition.

The exhaustive report, the product of 30,000 hours of work and 50 hours of oral evidence to Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), focused on a still-uncomfortable yet distant counter-terrorism struggle against al Qaeda a decade ago. It largely exonerated UK agencies in the direct abuse of terror suspects.
It concluded UK officials had never engaged in physical abuse of detainees between 2001 and 2010, had only been "involved" in it twice, and witnessed it firsthand 13 times. Only nine cases of UK officials delivering "verbal abuse" to detainees were reported over the nine-year period.
    But it noted there were 127 incidents in which UK officials were made aware of mistreatment by foreign services, and that in 232 cases UK officials continued to supply intelligence or questions to be asked in interrogation by foreign allies, despite being aware of detainee mistreatment.
    "It is easy to criticize with the benefit of hindsight," said Dominic Grieve, a member of Parliament and the chairman of the ISC, in a statement accompanying the report.
    "We wish to be absolutely clear that we do not seek to blame individual officers acting under immense pressure. Our findings must be viewed in the context in which the events took place. The pace of work after 9/11, both in Afghanistan and London, was frenetic: We do not underestimate the pressure that the agencies experienced whilst dealing with the imperative to protect the UK and prevent another attack on the scale of 9/11."
    "With that said, more could have been done at an agency and ministerial level to seek to influence US behavior. More could also have been done to distance themselves from mistreatment of detainees.
    The intense scrutiny and at times scolding language of the report contrasts with rhetoric in the White House over detainee abuse. President Donald Trump, as a candidate, declared he believes "torture works". US officials deny that is the case, or that US officials abuse detainees.
    The current director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, has said she would not restart the controversial "enhanced interrogation" program. But she has faced questions over her role as supervisor of a CIA "black site" in Thailand where harsh interrogations took place, and had a role in the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes.
    The report emphasized the distance between US hardline political rhetoric and European intelligence practice, many issues of which remain current as the US and its European allies struggle to remove foreign ISIS fighters from custody in northern Syria so they can be tried in Western courts.
    A UK security source said after the report's release: "Today, we do things differently. We have learned the lessons of those difficult post-9/11 years and structures have matured, both in SIS [MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service] and across government."
    While many of its conclusions were historical, the ISC report did call on the UK government to spell out within three months its current policy over UK airspace and territory being used for any possible American rendition flights, saying it was "astonishing" how little progress had been made in this area. It also reported that there were three cases between 2001-2010 in which MI6 or MI5 (British foreign and domestic intelligence, respectively) paid or offered to pay unspecified others to conduct an "extraordinary rendition" for them.
    In the era of ISIS's brutality and the at-times zero-tolerance Western response to it, the report's focus on a handful of misdemeanors highlighted the cultural change and increased scrutiny of British spies since former UK Prime Minister David Cameron ordered it in 2010.
    British Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed the ISC report in a statement, and said the focus for the UK at the time had been "doing everything possible to prevent further loss of innocent life, both here and overseas ... With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that UK personnel were working within a new and challenging operating environment for which, in some cases, they were not prepared."
    A UK security source said the post 9/11 challenge to intelligence agencies was "simply unprecedented in its scale." The source added that MI6 had few counter-terror sources or experience holding detainees.
      The UK security source said: "Ethical and professional standards, integrity and values run through everything we do... Legislation and oversight are vital to us; staff must have the confidence that the legal basis for our activity is solid. We have drawn the right lessons for the years under review, and that they are embedded in the practices of the modern SIS [MI6]."
      The source added British spies wanted "a robust system of independent oversight and accountability: it is a critical part of our values, and of the democratic order that this service seeks to protect ... We have had to learn some tough lessons. Today we face unprecedented levels of threat, be that from terrorism or hybrid warfare. Brave men and women who work for us, often at great personal risk, mean that MI6 is active and effective."