Given half the chance
They danced around the truth
For most of my youth
Like you’re really going to jump off that roof
You lived your life
In a perfect paradise
The sun always shone
On your beaches with lies
– Leatherface, ‘Diego Garcia’ (2010)
In October 2005, then Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells stood before Parliament and reported that the UK government had granted no requests for extraordinary rendition in any part of British territory or airspace, and was aware of no such use. Critics – who suspected that the UK was indeed complicit in rendition for torture – pressed the point. So in December Jack Straw, who was Foreign Secretary, explained that “careful research” within government had turned up no evidence of renditions since 9/11 in UK spaces (land, air, or sea) and, again, no requests. The very next day Straw was giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and was asked about the possibility of an investigation along similar lines as other EU states. Came the forceful reply:
I do not think that there is any case whatsoever for such an investigation here…I did what it is my duty to do, which is to provide a thorough comprehensive answer. That has been done. It has produced a nil return. Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been, and so what on earth a judicial inquiry would start to do I have no idea.
Conspiracies! Dark forces. Lies and secret states, no less. By January 2006, Howells was again reporting to MPs that all relevant Foreign Office records and recollections had been checked, implying that no proof of rendition had been discovered. Two years later David Miliband, who replaced Straw, was forced to admit that two renditions in fact did pass through the island of Diego Garcia in 2002 (Blair, pathetically: “We have just been informed by the United States of America about what has actually happened”). Suspicions were somewhat confirmed, but it was all a long time ago, and there was a change of Prime Minister, and then of government. While rendition-torture didn’t exactly go away, it faded from view. But it has resurfaced. Last month we discovered that some crucial records are incomplete due to ‘water damage’. Because if you have files pertinent to a major foreign policy controversy, why not store them that badly? Never mind that Ministers had previously argued that they wouldn’t be keeping notes anyway, and had to rely on assurances from the Americans (an “error” in US records was the culprit). Kettle logic, again.
A guest post from Christian Emery, Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Plymouth. Chris completed his PhD at the University of Birmingham and has held teaching positions at the University of Warwick and the University of Nottingham. Between 2010 and 2013 he was a Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics. His research covers several areas but is primarily situated at the intersection of International Relations, Diplomatic History, and Foreign Policy Analysis. He is interested in all aspects of post-war US foreign policy, with specific expertise in US policy in Iran. His latest book is US Foreign Policy and the Iranian Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, coming this October) and he is also the author of pieces in Cold War History, The Iran-Iraq War (Routledge, 2013) and commentary in The Guardian. His next journal article will appear in Diplomacy and Statecraft.
This week an organisation dedicated to expanding public access to US government information, and publishing its former secrets, released documents proving the CIA’s involvement in an illegal covert action. Sound familiar? In this case, however, the authors had no fear of landing themselves in solitary, a foreign embassy, or (worse still) a Russian airport. The organisation lifting the lid was the National Security Archive (I will not indulge in the ironic use of acronyms) which, despite the official sounding name, receives no government funding. The NSA (ok, just once) fights for greater transparency and accountability in US foreign policy within a legal framework. Its primary weapon in fighting for open government is the Freedom of Information Act, and its bluntness may be part of the reason why others have taken more drastic action. I will return to the prescient topic of government secrecy later on, but first a few words on the content of these documents.
The documents are significant for a number of reasons, but the headline news is this: ‘CIA Admits It Was Behind Iran’s Coup.’ The most significant line taken from these documents is from a CIA internal history from the mid-1970s: “the military coup that overthrew Mossadeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of US foreign policy, conceived and approved of at the highest levels of government.”
A legitimate response is:
Quick historical recap. In August 1953 the CIA (working with MI6) orchestrated the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossadegh and installed Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in his place. The specific motivation for the coup (codenamed TPAJAX) was that Mossadegh was attempting to nationalise Iranian oil. The more pressing fear was that his government was unstable and Cold War thinking dictated that this made Iran vulnerable to Soviet influence. This anxiety was heightened by Iran’s huge oil resources, geographic proximity to the Soviet Union, and the existence of a large and well established Iranian communist party (the Tudeh). The plot to topple Mossadegh initially failed, spooking the Shah into premature exile, but a few days later US and UK agents managed through a variety of nefarious tactics to put a decisive number of pro-Shah supporters onto the streets. Mossadegh’s supporters were rounded up and the great man himself was sentenced to death (the sentence was never carried out – he died in Tehran in 1967). After the coup, Iran’s concession to Western oil companies was renegotiated and for the first time American petroleum companies were granted access to draw Iranian oil.