Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee It’s been 15 years since allegations first emerged of Britain’s involvement in the torture of those suspected of the 9/11 terror attacks, and earlier this month (July 2018) an official report has finally been released which reveals the ‘true’ extent of Britain’s compliance with the USA’s programme of torture.
According to Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), Britain’s involvement amounted to at least 13 occasions of British agents witnessing suspects being mistreated and having been informed (but done nothing about) of mistreatment by their foreign counterparts or detainees more than 150 times.
The report found that British agents weren’t directly involved in torture themselves, but the strategy of British intelligence was to ‘outsource’ the interrogation process to those who they knew used ‘enhanced techniques such as stress positions, sleep deprivation and beatings.
The British effectively turned a blind eye to the fact that the USA was in breach of the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. They were so ‘blind’ in fact that they ignored the fact that at one detention centre detainees were kept in containers so small that they could neither stand or lie down, getting around this particular breach of human rights by simply building interrogation portacabins which were large enough to comfortably accommodate the prisoners.
So why did this happen?
Following 9/11 the security and intelligent services were under intense pressure to find and prosecute those responsible, but also to find information which might prevent future terrorist attacks. The problem with using such techniques, however, is that they might well just serve to increase recruitment to the same terrorist networks the authorities are trying to quash.
Relevance to A-level sociology
This seems to be a good example of Britain being involved in a ‘state crime’, also a good example of the extent of barriers to researching powerful actors: it’s taken 15 years for this official report to be conducted, and even this doesn’t tell us the whole story: Theresa May refused permission for four key officers to give evidence on national security grounds, so the true extent of Britain’s complicity in state crime may not surface for many years to come!
In case you’ve been living in the dark-ages and missed it (like me) Hunted is a T.V. show in which ordinary individuals take on the role of fugitives on the run from ‘Hunters’ who take on the role of agents of the state (think of MI6 meets special ops).
The latest C4 series kick-started with 9 individuals (although 6 of them paired-up, so really just 6 targets) bailing from a van in Manchester city center, and then spreading out to the four corners of the UK. If they can evade the Hunters for 25 days, the survivors each get a share of £100K.
The ‘Hunters’ consist of some serious (and not particularly pleasant, although that may be dramatic license) intelligence professionals based in London HQ, who steer a number of ground-teams, some of whom are the ‘Hunters’ who are empowered to ‘arrest’ the fugitives, and some of whom are just covert surveillance operatives who aren’t allowed to reveal their identity.
I must say, I caught the second half of episode 5/6 entirely accidentally during a Thursday evening channel hopping session last week, and enjoyed it so much I binged-watch the entire series over the next couple of days.
At time of writing (5 episodes in to a series of 6), 4 out of the 6 targets have been captured by the Hunters using a variety of surveillance and closure tactics, and 3 remain: because one original pairing has split up.
Despite enjoying the show, I couldn’t help but do a little sociological analysis:
Sociological Observations of Hunted
We may as well start with the obvious – YES the state has deeply-penetrating powers of surveillance.
Without giving too much away, the ‘Hunters’ use the following techniques to track down the fugitives:
CCTV – obviously
Bank card transactions which PING an alert at hunter HQ as soon as they’re used (should’ve used steem)
Phone taps – some of the fugitives use ‘burner phones’ to avoid detection, the problem being that as soon as they ring someone in their network, the Hunters have that burner phone on record and can tap it.
Bugging computers – the Hunters are allowed access to the fugitives’ network to interview them and use USBs to hack into their computers so they can take control of them (whether this happens in real-life, I don’t know)
Car tracking devices.
Analysis of the fugitives’ social media profiles.
Network analysis – this actually proves to be the most important aspect of tracking people down, simply analyzing the network of family and friends and focusing surveillance on these is what typically leads the ground teams to the fugitives.
Secondly – the show demonstrates the extent to which we live in a ‘Network Society’
The Hunters have access to the fugitives’ phone and social media records, which clearly show the fugitives’ recent life-histories mapped out, and, crucially for most of the captures, the ‘densest’ lines of communication within those networks.
With some of the individual fugitives, we really get to see the ‘strength of weak ties’ – especially the guy who is ‘Deputy Mayor of Sheffield’, whose network is huge. However, there is one person who stands out, and this is what gets him caught in the end.
With the three pairs, what is further apparent is that all of them have quite different personal networks, despite being very close to each-other, which really goes to show to complexity of networks in contemporary Britain.
Thirdly – the show demonstrates dramatically the continued importance of local and family connections
Interestingly, MOST of the fugitives return to their home turf, and most to the support of their local friends and families – so it is clearly not correct to say that our networks are free-floating and virtual – our meaningful relationships are still very grounded.
Finally – it gives us a nice insight into Multi-cultural Britain!
I don’t know if it was a deliberate ploy of this year’s recruiters to demonstrate British multiculturalism, but it’s very interesting to note that 2/6 targets were African Immigrants, all from different countries: it’s actually quite rare to get such an in-depth insight into the back-stories of black-Britons, quite a nice escape from the usual, generalized tokenistic representations we get in ‘black history month’ for example.
Very Finally – what I probably find most interesting about the show (although this might just be me) is that it does put you on the side of the fugitives… you do want them to win, and this is a potentially disruptive show… it wakes you up to the awesome surveillance powers of the State: the extent to which they can penetrate into our daily lives, especially if we leave an electronic trace… although it might also be performing a subtle ‘social control function’ by sending out the message that….
The State COULD be watching you.
I think the addition #Hunted really needs is a ‘how to avoid state-surveillance’ guide… and what would my strategy be? Actually I’m not going to say, I fancy a pop at this for season 4!
This material is relevant to the topic of ‘State Crime’ and ‘War and Conflict’ as an aspect of development. The point of it is to illustrate that the United States is pretty much the biggest military aggressor in recent world history, and thus a good candidate for the country which commits the worst state-crimes.
The United States military is responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in The Middle East, South West Asia, and North Africa, as Part of the United States Government’s Ongoing War on Terror. Civilians are protected under International Humanitarian Law, which means that every single civilian death is potentially an example of a State Crime committed by the USA.
Civilian Deaths and the United States’ ‘War on Terror’
The United States uses cutting edge military hardware to kill what it believes to be terrorists. Most of the killing the U.S. army and air force do these days is remote, typically involving missiles released from drones many miles away from their targets, with the drones themselves being piloted by people even further away.
Increasingly, the weapons of choice, used throughout the Middle East, are Predator and Reaper drones, but the US Air force also still operates F16s, Apache attack helicopters and AC-130 gunships, in Afghanistan for example.
Whether you go with the lower or higher estimate of deaths, the percentage of civilians killed in the War on Terror is somewhere in the region of 20-25% of the total (what the US would call ‘collateral damage’).
The U.S. claims that a combination of painstakingly gathered intelligence and precision-targeted missiles have enabled it to make sure that the people it’s targeting are actually enemy combatants and to minimise the number of civilian casualties, but nonetheless thousands of civilians have also been taken out by the United States in this process over the last decade and a half.
The United Nations has questioned the legality of drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan, with which the United States isn’t actually at war, and has further criticised the U.S. government for not releasing its own data on the numbers of casualties due its drone war – hence the need to rely on investigative journalism.
So it seems that at least 20-25% of these drone attacks are state-crimes in the sense that this is the proportion which take out innocent civilians; then there’s the possibility that the entire drone-campaign itself is illegal, given that the United States isn’t technically at war with most of the countries it’s operating its drones in.
The Destruction of the Kunduz Trauma Centre
On 3 October 2015, a United States Air Force AC-130U gunship attacked the Kunduz Trauma Centre operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in the city of Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan. At least 42 people were killed and over 30 were injured. This appears to be a pretty unambiguous example of a war crime committed by the U.S. military.
The video below (5.20 – 7.00 minutes) will give you an idea of the capability of an AC-130 Gunship, basically a very large plane which houses various different types of guns and missile and bomb launchers along with LOTS AND LOTS of ammunition. (NB these gunships cost somewhere between $130-190 million, depending on the model, at 2001 prices).
On 7 October 2015, President Barack Obama issued a rare apology and announced the United States would be making condolence payments to the families of those killed in the airstrike.
Background to the Attack
On 28 September 2015, Taliban militants seized the city of Kunduz, driving government forces out of the city. After the reinforcements arrived, the Afghan army, backed by U.S. airstrikes, began an offensive operation to regain control of the city; after several days of fighting, Afghan forces claimed to have retaken the city. However, fighting continued, and on 3 October, a US-led airstrike struck and badly damaged Kunduz Trauma Centre operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), killing doctors, staff members and patients.
Médecins Sans Frontières reported that on the night of 3 October, the organization’s Kunduz hospital was struck by “a series of aerial bombing raids” and that the building was “partially destroyed”. It further said the hospital had been “repeatedly & precisely hit” and that the attack had continued for 30 minutes after MSF staff contacted U.S. and Afghan officials during the strike.
MSF had informed all warring parties of the location of its hospital complex. MSF personnel had contacted U.S. military officials as recently as 29 September to reconfirm the precise location of the hospital. Two days prior to the attack Carter Malkasian, adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emailed MSF asking if the facility had Taliban militants “holed up” inside.
Attacks on medical facilities are forbidden under international humanitarian law unless the facilities “are being used, outside their humanitarian function, to commit acts harmful to the enemy”. Even if enemy combatants are inappropriately using the facility for shelter, the rule of proportionality usually forbids such attacks because of the high potential for civilian casualties. Human Rights Watch said the laws of war require the attacking force to issue a warning, and wait a reasonable time for a response, before attacking a medical unit being misused by combatants
At the time of the airstrikes, MSF was treating women and children and wounded combatants from both sides of the conflict. MSF estimates that of the 105 patients at the time of the attack, between 3 and 4 of the patients were wounded government combatants, while approximately 20 patients were wounded Taliban. MSF general director Christopher Stokes said, “Some public reports are circulating that the attack on our hospital could be justified because we were treating Taliban. Wounded combatants are patients under international law, and must be free from attack and treated without discrimination. Medical staff should never be punished or attacked for providing treatment to wounded combatants.”
It’s difficult to put a positive spin on this, but I guess you could say it’s better than when the United States unnecessarily nuked Hiroshima in 1945 where the civilian to combatant ratio must have been significantly higher – so while the US clearly isn’t respecting International Humanitarian Law by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, at least they’re doing better than in the past.
Postscript: International Humanitarian Law
What enables us to determine that the above acts by the United States military and government are in fact state-crimes is the existence of International Humanitarian Law.
According to Amnesty International ‘International law prohibits arbitrary killing and limits the lawful use of intentional lethal force to exceptional situations. In armed conflict, only combatants and people directly participating in hostilities may be directly targeted. Outside armed conflict, intentional lethal force is lawful only when strictly unavoidable to protect against an imminent threat to life. In some circumstances arbitrary killing can amount to a war crime or extrajudicial executions, which are crimes under international law’
International humanitarian law is a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict. A major part of international humanitarian law is contained in the four Geneva Conventions (1864 -1949).
The basic principles of International Humanitarian Law include:
Those who are not taking part in hostilities (e.g. civilians) shall be protected in all circumstances. Parties to a conflict shall at all times distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. Attacks shall be directed against legitimate military targets.
The wounded and the sick shall be cared for and protected by the party to the conflict which has them in its power. The emblem of the “Red Cross,” or of the “Red Crescent,” shall be required to be respected as the sign of protection.
Captured persons must be protected against acts of violence and reprisals. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
Parties to a conflict do not have an unlimited choice of methods and means of warfare. Humanitarian law has banned the use of many weapons, including exploding bullets, chemical and biological weapons, blinding laser weapons and anti-personnel mines.
Once conflict has ended, anyone breaching any of the rules laid down by International Humanitarian Law can be tried through an international tribunal. However, it’s unlikely that any U.S. personnel will ever see justice for their part in killing innocent civilians.
Finally, just a quick reminder of the point of this post – it’s not just Islamic Fundamentalists killing in the name of ideology, America does it too, and by the objective (ish) standards of International Humanitarian Law, many of these killings are state crimes.