UK minister retracts claim of US 'threat' to cut off intel if evidence of torture released
Mike Sheehan
Published: Wednesday February 4, 2009

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Miliband: No US pressure; White House issues statement; ACLU: 'Hope flickering'

A top minister in the British government said that the United States threatened to withhold shared intelligence if evidence of the torture of a UK citizen at Guantanamo Bay was released.

The allegation was made by British foreign secretary David Miliband, who told the United Kingdom's High Court that if evidence was disclosed, the US would stop sharing intelligence with the UK, an action that would directly threaten British national security.

The UK resident, Binyam Mohamed, launched a challenge in British court to force the public release of documents detailing his treatment. Mohamed is presently in a hunger strike at the US detainee camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at last report was in an emaciated state. He says confessions he made regarding his involvement with terrorism resulted from torture.

The statement by Miliband led to scathing criticism from two High Court judges who were nevertheless compelled to rule that the documents must remain secret because of the US threat.

"In the light of the long history of the common law and democracy which we share with the United States," the judges said, "it was in our view difficult to conceive that a democratically elected and accountable government could possibly have any rational objection to placing into the public domain such a summary of what its own officials reported, as to how a detainee was treated by them and which made no disclosure of sensitive intelligence matters.

"Indeed we did not consider that a democracy governed by the rule of law would expect a court in another democracy to suppress a summary of the evidence contained in reports by its own officials," they continued, "relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment, politically embarrassing though it might be.

"We had no reason," said the judges, "to anticipate there would be made a threat of the gravity of the kind made by the United States government that it would reconsider its intelligence sharing relationship, when all the considerations in relation to open justice pointed to us providing a limited but important summary of the reports.

"It was and remains," the ruling said, "the judgment of the Foreign Secretary that the United States Government might carry that threat out."

The ruling sparked the ire of Conservative MP David Davis, who said in Parliament that UK ministers must answer to charges that Britain was complicit in torture and demanded a statement by Miliband to the House of Commons explaining "what the devil is going on."

The US threat had been originally put in place by the Bush administration, Davis charged, adding that Miliband must explain "whether the new Obama administration supported its predecessor's stance on the issue."

A spokesperson for the UK's Liberal Democrats said the British government had "rolled over in the face of a scarcely credible threat from a friend."

Miliband on Thursday vehemently denied that the US had pressured Britain to keep the Mohamed documents secret, insisting instead that the UK was unable to release the information simply because it would have violated the intel-sharing agreement with the US, an explanation that doesn't appear to jibe with what the High Court judges described.

Mohamed's lawyers accused Miliband of misleading the High Court and requested that the judges reopen the case.

For its part, the office of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, "We have not engaged with the [Obama] administration on the detail of this case" and that the UK government "would 'unreservedly condemn' the use of torture and any allegations of mistreatment would be taken 'very seriously.'"

The White House late Wednesday commented on the situation via written statement, saying that the US "thanks the UK government for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information and preserve the long-standing intelligence sharing relationship that enables both countries to protect their citizens."

Obama's statement alarmed the American Civil Liberties Union, a civil rights watchdog, which responded in a news release, "Hope is flickering. The Obama administration's position is not change. It is more of the same."

Author, journalist and Raw Story contributor Andy Worthington, who has closely monitored US torture and ongoing detentions, says "the bitter truth ... is that Guantanamo is still being run as if the Bush administration remains in control."

Former Bush vice president Dick Cheney seemed to reassert his influence even now, warning recently that the new administration's anti-terror policies risked exposing the US to a catastrophic attack and saying that President Obama would regret his determination to close down Gitmo and end harsh interrogations of terror suspects.

Said journalist and columnist Joe Klein in reaction to the former VP's withering criticism, "Cheney has done here what the Bush administration did throughout: he has politicized terror."