Manningham-Buller’s second Reith lecture

If you liked the first Reith Lecture by Eliza Manningham Buller then you’ll probably also like the second.  I attended last night’s recording at the Leeds City Museum and there’s plenty in there to discuss.  The headline grabber will be the condemnation of torture (although the specific statement that 12 of 15 serious threats since 9/11 were successfully prevented was also interesting: the other three 7/7, 21/7 and Richard Reid).  There is a nuance to her analysis on torture, however, that might be missed, so it is worth noting here.  She is clear that torture is counter-productive in the long term.  She’s very much in ‘the recruitment tool’ camp, i.e. our hypocrisy and barbarity acts as a recruitment tool for terrorist organisations.  The prohibition against torture is not simply a matter of principle or liberal identity it is also a matter of security.  There are security costs to the west’s hypocrisy and barbarity and so it is in our interests to conform to our liberal values. 

This puts her at odds with the likes of Dick Cheney.  The difference I think stems from a deep seated difference in views about politics and security.  Cheney and American conservatives generally hold binary/Manichean views of politics and security, which are often articulated in the Schmittian-type friend-enemy distinctions, or a religious-inspired good-evil distinction.  These hold that the enemy is always out there. The state of exception that the good/liberal/civilised state operates in, in order to defeat the evil/illiberal/barbaric enemy, is permanent. 

Manningham-Buller it seems to me offers a different view.  The existence of a terrorist enemy and insecurity is not inevitable.  Her many references to progress in Northern Ireland illustrate this.  Security is ultimately delivered through political processes not military victory.  This includes talking to those using violence against you. The security services have to be acutely conscious of how they impact on that political process. Torture does not help deliver long term political solutions because it more often than not creates enmity where there was once tolerance.  It is not just torture that has this effect.  She again refers to the suicide videos of the 7/7 bombers as evidence that  security policies (the invasion of Iraq) can create what they purport to solve; and of course this all fits into the theme of her first lecture, which was that it was/is a mistake to suggest we are at war with terrorists.

On the torture question, there is a potential chink in her armour, which will no doubt be exploited by those who consider torture to be justifiable.  She acknowledges that torture can deliver actionable intelligence.  But she pre-empts the Cheney-types in two ways: first, the claims, particularly in the US, that evidence derived from torture saved lives have been exaggerated. Second, she argues, bravely, that even with the knowledge that torture can sometimes provide actionable intelligence we still should not use it because of the long-term security costs.  This is reminiscent of the often cited remark by General Carlo dalla Chiesa on the kidnapping of Italian former prime minister Aldo Moro: “Italy can survive the loss of Moro but it cannot survive the introduction of torture.”  

As one would expect, she didn’t respond to specific questions relating to the documents recently discovered in Libya.  She did state, however, that she expected to give evidence on that to the Gibson Inquiry. There’s implicit acknowledgement in the lecture that governments and intelligence agencies have to work with regimes they don’t particularly like and this brings risks.  It’s interesting here that having acknowledged those risks, she doesn’t categorically rule out working with regimes like Ghaddafi’s.  This seeming acceptance of working with such regimes doesn’t carry with it, in her mind it seems, the same long-term reputational and security costs as the direct use of torture.

There was a very strong defence of treating terrorists as criminals rather than enemy combatants.  Prosecution she states is the ultimate goal of the security service and it was preferable to an ‘off-shore’ detention facility, which of course was an indirect rejection of the American regime at Guantanamo Bay. She was proud of the service’s record here. She admitted that prosecutions of terrorists through criminal courts is difficult and in answer to a question from David Davies MP she thought that using intercept evidence in court was a good idea. 

Finally, I thought she dealt with the question of relations with Muslim communities, and specifically Leeds Muslims – given that the 7/7 bombers were from Leeds – sensitively.  She pointed out that her service could not have had the successes it had since 9/11 without the help of British Muslims; and in answer to a rather strange question of how Leeds as a city could rid itself of ‘the shackles’ of 7/7 she denied that this was ever the case. And this has been my experience having lived in Leeds for over a decade.  It was of course heartbreaking to discover that the bombers came from Leeds and it added to the shock and sadness, but I’ve never felt that the city had been tarred or shackled by that fact. For Manningham-Buller the 7/7 bombers could have lived anywhere and were responding to global events, which reinforced the theme that 7/7 was a response to British/American foreign policy.


About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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One Response to Manningham-Buller’s second Reith lecture

  1. Pingback: The war on terror in its second decade. Continuity we have to believe in (IV) | The American Exception

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