Friday, October 31, 2008

The “Special Relationship” Frays: British Gov’t Investigating CIA Officers For Torture

So much for the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain. If it is not in complete tatters, it is fraying badly this morning.

The British Attorney General says he will investigate allegations that a British resident arrested by the US in Pakistan before being “rended” to Morocco, shipped to the black hell hole prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and is now at Guantanamo Bay was brutally tortured after being arrested and questioned by American intelligence officers beginning in 2002.

According to The Independent, British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith wants the attorney general, Baroness Scotland, to bring criminal proceedings against American CIA officers said to be responsible for the rendition and abuse of Binyam Mohamed when he was held in prisons in Morocco and Afghanistan as a result of US rendition.

This follows sharp criticism of US prosecutors by British judges who read secret evidence of torture committed against Mohamed, including allegations his torturers used a razor blade to cut his penis repeatedly. The Attorney General's investigation is expected to include allegations that MI5 colluded in Mohamed's rendition. Mohamed, 30, an Ethiopian national and British resident, was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, where he was questioned by an MI5 officer before being handed over to the Americans.

On Tuesday, Government lawyers wrote to the judges hearing Mohamed's case against the UK government in the High Court. In the letter they said "the question of possible criminal wrongdoing to which these proceedings has given rise has been referred by the Home Secretary to the Attorney general for consideration as an independent minister of justice." Baroness Scotland has been sent secret witness statements given to the court and public interest immunity certificates for the proceedings.

Mohamed, 30, accuses MI5 agents of lying about what they knew of CIA plans to transfer him to a prison in North Africa, where he claims he was subjected to horrendous torture to extort a confession. Last night, his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, said, "This is a welcome recognition that the CIA cannot just go rendering British residents to secret torture chambers without consequences, and British agents cannot take part in US crimes without facing the music."

The US State Dept. had no comment this morning on the British claims, a spokeswoman telling me, “we do not comment on matters before foreign courts.” A spokesman for the CIA did not return several phone calls.

McCain’s Dirty Hands

That the CIA was able to do this is partly the responsibility of John McCain. Once a strong campaigner against the US using torture, he caved in to the Bush administration by allowing an ammendment to an anti-torture bill he sponsored and shepherded through Congress that exempted the CIA from the law’s key provisions.

Human rights groups have sharply criticised the British government for allowing CIA “torture flights” to refuel in England as well as fly through its airspace. A special European Parliament investigation condemned the US for its policy of “extraordinary rendition” where individuals suspected of participating in terrorist activities are flown to third countries that use torture as a matter of routine when questioning political prisoners.

“If John McCain had held firm in barring torture by any US government agency, Mr. Mohammed would have avoided being tortured whicforced him to confess to crimes he did not commit,” a spokesman for Human Rights Watch in Britain told me this morning.

“As a result of capitulating to White House demands,” she added, “McCain’s dirty hands are all over this case.”

Another Bush Lie

Torture under any circumstances violates Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention which both the US and Great Britain have signed. At the time of Mohammad’s rendition, George Bush lied repeatedly when he stated at news conferences between 2004 and 2006 “the US does not torture. Period.”

In August, two judges ruled allegations of torture were at least arguable in Mohammad’s case and stated that MI5 information relating to Mohamed was "not only necessary but essential for his defence.” The judges have read statements and interviews with Mohamed between July 28 and 31, 2004, when he says he was forced to confess to terrorism. The judges said, "This was after a period of over two-and-a-half years of incommunicado detention during which Binyam Mohamed … was tortured."

He was first held in Pakistan in 2002, where a British agent interrogated him; he was then sent to Morocco by the CIA and allegedly tortured for 18 months. He was rendered to the secret "Dark Prison" in Afghanistan, where his torture is alleged to have continued. Since September 2004, Mohammad has languished at Guantanamo Bay.

If the British Attorney General finds that the charges of torture are true – which will require merely going through MI5 and MI6 files – then criminal warrants could be issued against Americans who were involved in Mohammad’s torture, rendition and custody. It is doubtful that the Bush Administration would extradite the officers but it could be one of the first diplomatic issues facing the new president in January. If McCain is somehow elected, the officers involved wouldn’t be sent for trial in London but their travelling days and vacations will be limited to the United States.

Another reason to vote for Barack Obama.

Stop The Presses!

The McCain campaign’s latest attempt to portray the press as liberal puppets of Barack Obama — by painting the Los Angeles Times’s refusal to release a videotape of the senator at a farewell dinner in 2003 for Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian scholar and advocate, as part of a vast left-wing conspiracy — is much ado about nothing.

McCain’s previously-discredited spokesman, Michael Goldfarb, accused the Times of “intentionally suppressing information that could provide a clearer link between Barack Obama and Rashid Khalidi.” Goldfarb went on to mention a potentially vote-altering moment wherein the tape could have possibly captured Obama’s reaction to a “hate speech”-filled poem recited at the dinner.

This “intentional suppression” has caused plenty of consternation in the blogosphere. Many writers saw the Times’ refusal as evidence of liberal bias; others were just confused by the paper’s intransigence.

Yesterday, the Times published an article explaining its decision to withhold the video. Editor Russ Stanton said, “The Los Angeles Times did not publish the videotape because it was provided by a confidential source who did so on the condition that we not release it. The Times keeps its promises to its sources.”

Stanton’s explanation is more than plausible; in fact, such deals with sources are quite common in journalism. At one time or another, nearly every reporter has access to a document, allowed to take notes on the document and write a story based on the notes but not allowed to publish or otherwise distribute the document. So unless we’re prepared to call Stanton a liar, there shouldn’t be any problem taking him at his word.

As Bill Sammon, deputy managing editor of FOX News’s Washington bureau – of all people – put it, had LA Times reporter Peter Wallsten who wrote story based on the tape, buckled under the demands of the McCain campaign, sources would have good reason to question his trustworthiness in the future.

Sammon went on to add, “A deal is a deal, even if it’s a dumb deal. Besides, there may be a perfectly legitimate reason for withholding the tape, such as the possibility that it contains footage that would compromise an unnamed source’s identity.”

Furthermore, it’s not clear that the Times even still has the tape but if it does, and it chose to break its promise, what exactly do the McCain folks expect to find? They talk of wanting to see Obama’s reaction to the poem, but do they really think the camera was just zeroed in on the senator all night long, waiting for him to do something suspicious? A terrorist fist-bump, perhaps? Watching with bated breath for a glimpse of the senator as he reacts to a controversial banquet speech is the essence of deliberate oversimplification.

What we do wish the Times had done is be as transparent as possible about how the story came about. Tell us what they can about the source’s motivations and why the editors agreed to grant anonymity and to the restrictions on the use of the tape. This would go a long way toward reassuring the rational public that there is no conspiracy here. For everyone else, it doesn’t matter what the Times does or says.