Andrew Tyrie, Conservative MP
© Felix ClayAndrew Tyrie, Conservative MP: 'It is deeply shocking that Britain facilitated kidnap and torture'.

Former government ministers and intelligence chiefs face a series of disturbing questions over the UK's involvement in the abduction and torture of terrorism suspects after 9/11, an official inquiry has concluded.

In a damning report that swept aside years of denials, the Gibson inquiry concluded that the British government and its intelligence agencies had been involved in so-called rendition operations, in which detainees were kidnapped and flown around the globe, and had interrogated detainees who they knew were being mistreated.

MI6 officers were informed that they were under no obligation to report breaches of the Geneva conventions; intelligence officers appear to have taken advantage of the abuse of detainees; and Jack Straw, as foreign secretary, had suggested that the law might be amended to allow suspects to be rendered to the UK.

After examining about 20,000 documents which outlined allegations involving around 200 detainees, the chair of the inquiry, Sir Peter Gibson, and his team raised 27 questions that they said would need to be answered if the full truth about the way in which Britain waged its so-called war on terror was to be established - and the heads of MI5 and MI6 were told they have a month to respond.

The questions include:

- Did UK intelligence officers turn a blind eye to "specific, inappropriate techniques or threats" used by others and use this to their advantage in interrogations?

- If so, was there "a deliberate or agreed policy" between UK officers and overseas intelligence officers?

- Did the government and its agencies become "inappropriately involved in some renditions"?

- Was there a willingness, "at least at some levels within the agencies, to condone, encourage or take advantage of a rendition operation"?

Comment: FYI, the term "rendition" is defined as:the practice of sending a foreign criminal or terrorist suspect covertly to be interrogated in a country with less rigorous regulations for the humane treatment of prisoners.

The report also questions whether MI5 and MI6 provided the intelligence and security committee (ISC) with accurate, complete information about the mistreatment of detainees in the past, "or sometimes whether they were notified at all".

However, the answers will be provided not to Gibson, but to the ISC, the secretive Westminster cross-party body that is supposed to provide oversight of the agencies. After promising for more than three years that an independent judge-led inquiry would examine the many allegations that the intelligence agencies face, the government announced on Thursday that it was handing the investigation over to the ISC.

That decision was immediately condemned by human rights groups who said that instead of drawing a line under the episode, the government was exposing itself to the allegation that it was engaging in a cover-up.

As a result of the decision to hand over to the ISC, it remains unclear whether any of the answers to Gibson's 27 questions will ever be made public. The committee's hearings are almost always behind closed doors, and its reports are censored before publication, in consultation with the agencies upon which it reports.

"It is deeply shocking that Britain facilitated kidnap and torture," Andrew Tyrie, a Tory backbencher and chairman of the Treasury select committee, told MPs. "The decision to abandon this judge-led inquiry will come to be seen as a mistake."

Tyrie said that an investigation by the ISC will never command public confidence, a criticism that was echoed by human rights groups. Amnesty International said: "Handing the investigation over to the ISC raises the prospect that much of the truth may remain buried." Human Rights Watch said: "The ISC has neither the independence nor the transparency to carry out such an important task."

Cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke told MPs that the inquiry's report paints a picture of government and intelligence agencies struggling to adapt to the new realities faced in the wake of 9/11 and said it was a matter of "sincere regret" if "mistakes and failures were made".

"It is now clear that our agencies and their staff were in some respects not prepared for the extreme demands suddenly placed upon them," he said.

The shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, told the Commons that an independent, open and transparent investigation was needed, with any wrongdoing being exposed and those responsible brought to account.

But Jack Straw - who was foreign secretary at the time that most of the abuses occurred and who is now being sued by one rendition victim - denied he was "in any way complicit with ... unlawful rendition or detention".

For years, ministers of the last Labour government evaded specific questions about the actions of the intelligence agencies, each time responding with a blanket denial: "The UK does not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture for any purpose."

In December 2005, Straw went so far as to tell the Commons foreign affairs committee that any suggestion of UK involvement in rendition was nothing more than a conspiracy theory.

That position has changed substantially. When Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, appeared before the ISC at its first and only public hearing last month, he was asked whether his agency was now "beyond reproach" in such matters. "We have learned a huge amount over the last 12 years," he replied. "There is no way that our members of staff could be drawn into situations, at this stage, where there is any doubt about what they should be doing."

After examining around 20,000 documents,Gibson, a retired appeal court judge, and Dame Janet Paraskeva, a government official who sat alongside him, concluded that there are many more questions to be asked. They grouped these into four broad themes: interrogation; rendition; the training of intelligence officers and the guidance they received; and communications between the intelligence agencies and government.

The report also highlights the rendition of two Libyan nationals who were taken to Tripoli against their will, along with their families, in 2004. "There are serious allegations of UK involvement in rendition in relation to the two Libya nationals. These would plainly require investigation."

And it discloses that a few months after 9/11, Straw wrote to the home secretary, David Blunkett, requesting a feasibility study to establish whether English law could be amended to permit rendition to the UK. Blunkett replied: "The obstacles to this suggestion are simply too formidable."

held no oral hearings, as the inquiry was suspended in January last year when Scotland Yard announced it was launching a criminal investigation into the UK's involvement in the Libyan renditions. Since then, police have opened investigations into allegations of UK involvement in the mistreatment of three other men held at a US-run prison at Bagram, north of Kabul, in the months after the 2001 al-Qaida attacks.

The report was completed 18 months ago, but remained unpublished while Gibson and Paraskeva resisted government attempts to censor significant portions of their work.

Paraskeva said that the inquiry members were deeply disappointed that the investigation was now being handed over to the ISC. She too was unclear whether the public would see any answers that are made to the 27 questions. "I remain hopeful that the detainees will get their chance to have their say before the ISC," she said.

In the event, a number of pages of the report were censored before publication. After the battle to limit the redactions, the cuts are thought to be a few in number. The Cabinet Office maintained that the redactions had been made for national security reasons, a claim that could not be verified.

When David Cameron announced the establishment of the inquiry, a few weeks after the coalition government was formed, he told MPs: "I do not think for a moment that we should believe that the ISC should be doing this piece of work. For public confidence, and for independence from parliament, party and government, it is right to have a judge-led inquiry."

Today, however, the ISC chairman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, insists that such criticisms are outdated, and that his committee now had the powers, the staff and the will to conduct thorough and effective investigations.

Nevertheless, the ISC is understood to have been reluctant initially to take on the investigation: it is already undertaking wide-ranging inquiries into the bulk surveillance operations of the government's signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, and into issues surrounding the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby.