A Moral Quagmire

November 18, 2010

On Tuesday the British government announced that it had reached a settlement to pay compensation to sixteen former Guantanamo detainees for the abuses they suffered in US custody. Shaker Aamer, a UK resident still held in Guantanamo, will be one of those receiving an, as yet, undisclosed financial payment.

At least six of the individuals had lodged civil claims for damages against the government in the UK. The complaints included British complicity in unlawful detention, extraordinary rendition and torture. One detainee, Binyam Mohamed, alleged that British intelligence officers had supplied questions to his Moroccan interrogators who at one point cut his penis with a knife to get him to talk.

The British government has denied any wrong doing and the Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke told the House of Commons that “no admissions of culpability have been made in settling these cases.” The stated reasons the government decided to agree to the settlement were to avoid protracted litigation, diverting resources from vital counterterrorism investigations, and estimated legal costs that could have exceeded $80m.

However, an equally pressing concern was the government’s desire to protect classified information from disclosure in court. Much of this classified information related to CIA reporting on its interrogation and treatment of the detainees in its custody.

Attempts by the former detainee Binyam Mohamed to pursue compensation in British courts earlier this year for the abuses he suffered put the British government on the back foot as it fought to prevent the disclosure of classified documents to Mohamed’s lawyers.

These classified documents included forty-two communications from the CIA relating to the process of Mohamed’s interrogation, its planning, collaboration with British authorities, and the manner in which his treatment was monitored.

In its attempts to block the release of these documents, the government’s legal team told the court that both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the CIA had written official letters warning that the US would review its intelligence sharing agreement with the UK if the court released the information.

In the light of its experience in the Binyam Mohamed case it is difficult to escape to the conclusion that the British government has taken the step of settling all Guantanamo and rendition-related claims out of court in large part to spare American blushes and to preserve the close intelligence ties that exist between the two countries.

This is one of the little discussed consequences of the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism policies – our allies have been compromised and embarrassed by their association with the CIA’s rendition to torture and the reputational (and apparently financial) cost around the world of being America’s friend has gone up. Bush’s decision to authorize the use of a torture was both a crime and a blunder.

The British government’s announcement was made a day after Amnesty International published a new report – Open Secret: Mounting Evidence of Europe’s Complicity in Rendition and Secret Detention – on European involvement in the Bush administration’s illegal activities.

As the former President continues his book tour proudly proclaiming that he ordered the torture of terrorist suspects, the contrast could not be more stark. Europe is grappling to clean up a mess that is largely not of its own making while the prime culprit laughs all the way to the bank.