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by John Helmer, Moscow 

Truth is the safest lie.

That’s an adage so old the ancient Hebrews have claimed it as one of their own, attributing it to their mythical wise man King Solomon. He was especially keen to condemn lying, especially lying women (they were Solomon’s big problem — 700 wives, 300 concubines, according to the Book of Kings). But the one about truth as the safest lie is Solomon’s most sophisticated, least obvious idea, cynical even.

That’s why it has stood the test of time without Solomon’s heirs having a second thought about applying it on the land, in the press, and to the people they rule. What the adage means is that in situations where lying and deception are common, even performed in the public interest – in wars, parliaments, courts, police and intelligence operations – publication of the truth won’t be believed.  That’s also when the truth-teller will be dismissed as a conspiracy theorist, enemy agent, troll, or madman. Truth then becomes the secret service’s weapon of disinformation.

Take the big lies of the moment – that President Donald Trump colluded with President Vladimir Putin to defeat Hillary Clinton; that Putin ordered the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 and the nerve-agent assassination attempt against Sergei Skripal; that President Xi Jinping ordered, then covered up Chinese manufacture and release of the corona virus — no amount of evidence that these are falsehoods, nor repetition of the truth, can defeat the lies.

But liars can be defeated, a secret British court revealed this week. Well, not exactly defeated so much as interrupted or deterred.

In a case involving a challenge by civil rights groups to the British government’s policy of authorising the secret services to act illegally and commit crimes during their operations, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) in London has ruled that the secret services have the “power [to conduct criminal activities] as a matter of public law. It is important to appreciate that this does not mean that it has any power to confer immunity from liability under either the criminal law or the civil law (e.g. the law of tort) on either its own officers or on agents handled by them.”  Read the judgement, issued on December 20, 2019, in full here.

Challenged to say whether it’s legal for the secret services to detain individuals as part of their operational policy, the IPT refused to judge, claiming the lawfulness of detention is “usually one to be determined after the event on the concrete facts of a particular case rather than in the abstract.”

In the same judgement, the secret services are legally allowed to tell the state prosecutors and the courts when the national security interest should dictate prosecutions even when the evidence is insufficient or fabricated.   

These rulings by the IPT were so objectionable they have been appealed in the form of a new claim which the civil rights plaintiffs launched in January. They applied for preservation of the secret documents already before the court, plus new documents and witness statements. A timetable for disclosure was ordered in February.   The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), one of the five defendants, then tried its own methods to blind the investigation.

The IPT, whose judges are part-timers while they also serve on the benches of other UK courts, describes itself as a “judicial body which operates independently of government to provide a right of redress for anyone who believes they have been a victim of unlawful action by a public authority using covert investigative techniques. The Tribunal is also the appropriate forum to consider complaints about any conduct by or on behalf of the UK Intelligence Community, MI5, SIS and GCHQ, as well as claims alleging the infringement of human rights by those agencies.”  

Left to right: Sir Rabinder Singh, President of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal and a judge of the British Court of Appeal; Colin Boyd, Lord Boyd of Duncansby, Vice-President of the tribunal since June 2019 and a judge of the courts of Scotland; and Nathalie Lieven, a judge of the family division of the High Court.  The most recent appointee to the tribunal last November, she is the sister of Anatol and Dominic Lieven, members of a family of the tsarist aristocracy and of a former ambassador of Russia to London,  and now writers on Russia.

The first and second provisos of the IPT’s ruling last December confirm the legality of secret service agents to drug Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in March 2018, and hold them incommunicado at a secret location until now. The third proviso allowed the British government to dictate to the Crown Prosecution Service the charges of attempted murder by two Russian agents against the Skripals and chemical warfare, which were announced in September 2018, although the evidence against the accused was fabricated and false. It still is.

When the IPT issued its ruling in December, it wasn’t considering the Skripal case.  For that to happen, the Skripals, or a lawyer acting for them, would have to lodge an application for the Tribunal to review the legality of their treatment and subsequent confinement. That hasn’t happened.

When the High Court heard an application by the government for permission for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to take blood samples from the Skripals in March 2018, the court was told they were unconscious in hospital and incapable of communicating; on subsequent evidence, this appears to have been untrue. 

When the Wiltshire coroner ruled last December on evidence he had gathered as part of his inquest investigation into the death of Dawn Sturgess from Novichok, the Russian nerve agent allegedly left behind by the Skripal assassins, the coroner did not identify the Skripals as  witnesses capable of testifying on the circumstances of the attack they had experienced, or the nerve agent weapon prosecutors allege the two Russian agents used against them.  

Earlier this month, in a High Court hearing to review the coroner’s ruling, two judges ruled to accept the evidence of the attack on the Skripals without calling the Skripals to testify themselves. They didn’t order the coroner to do so after they ruled to return the case to him for more investigation.  

By keeping the evidence of the Skripals out of court, the truth of what happened to them looks to be a safe lie.

This week the IPT president Sir Rabinder Singh announced publicly that secret service agents can go too far. This, he said, is not when they get caught committing crimes, holding prisoners in secret, or lying. It’s when the agents make telephone calls to the Tribunal to say the judges should give back top-secret MI6 documents which they had been shown.

Source: https://www.bbc.com/

“This tribunal,” Singh said, is “a court which is completely independent of the government, the intelligence agencies and everybody else. In March 2019, it was recognised that the direct communication was inappropriate. An apology was given and it was recognised that nothing like this should happen in the future. Everyone recognised that something serious had gone wrong.” The BBC headlined its report “MI6 apologises for court ‘interference’”. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-53559291 

The truth of the matter was more than the BBC reported or Singh allowed to be public knowledge. Singh refused to allow an investigation of what MI6 had done, why it had done so, and who had authorised it. MI6 had written to the Tribunal: “Please accept my apologies for any misunderstanding that may have arisen as a result of the approach made to the tribunal.” Singh ruled this was good enough, including the lie word, “misunderstanding.” Singh’s warning to MI6 was that “direct communication” between MI6 and the judges shouldn’t happen again. The loophole he left for the secret services to communicate with the judges is obvious. A new court hearing is set for July 30.

In December, the IPT had accepted a secret letter of 2011 from the deputy-director of MI5 at the time, Andrew Parker. He told the tribunal its guidelines for illegal operations had “to give us the flexibility, we need to run these agent cases to the best effect and, perhaps above all, a better alternative that is practicable and deliverable has yet to be identified.”  Fresh directions by Prime Minister Theresa May were then issued on March 1, 2018, “to keep under review compliance with the Consolidated Guidance on Detainees by officers of the security and intelligence agencies, and members of the armed forces and employees of MOD so far as they are engaged in intelligence activities…[and on] the use of agents who participate in criminality and the authorisations issued in accordance with them.”

Eighteen months later, Singh decided last December that in judging the “best effect” of the operations and how criminal they were, there is still no alternative. “We have come to the conclusion that the oversight powers… do provide adequate [sic] safeguards against the risk of abuse of discretionary power.”

The truth of that appears to be another of the safe lies.

Almost fifty years ago, an old friend tried to upset the safety schemes liars in the secret services regularly employ in their operations, including their operations to gull the courts. His name was J. Bowyer Bell (right); he was an American with a passion for the Irish, especially the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He wrote the history of the old IRA, and many papers on its fragmentation into the groups the British secret services continue to pursue. From time to time on Irish operations the British would shoot at him. Bow escaped harm until 2003 when he died of an unfortunate, though more or less natural cause.

As the piper of some Bow’s tunes, the CIA’s deception operations were discretely avoided in his books, though not in his asides. He wasn’t so inhibited in his dislike of the lying of the Israelis. With Barton Whaley, a semi-academic colleague, Bow produced this chart for all those who would try to understand the truth which liars aim to conceal.  The chart appears in their book, published in New York in 1982, called “Cheating: Deception in war & magic, games & sports, sex & religion, business & con games, politics & espionage, art & science”. To fool no one, they combined their real names into a false pen name – J. Barton Bowyer. They also changed the page numbering so that there are hundred pages less than the reader thinks, including one blank.

“Any deception that does not fit into one of the six categories,” warns the book to seekers of the truth, “is not a true deception but rather some sort of conceit…To find out which category any deception fits in, the first question should be whether the ruse is intended to hide or to show”.

Source: J. Bowyer Bell & Barton Whaley, Cheating, New York: 1982. Key: Charcs = characteristics of the deception type.

Bow placed an Italian adage at the start of his book — dopo il fatto, il consiglio non vale. It means that learning the truth after the fact won’t help you much. Truer about truth,  less cynical than Solomon’s adage.

Let’s see what truth August will bring. If you plan on fossicking down black holes, stay safe.  

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