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Friday, 6 February 2009

6 February 2009

I have some questions for you:

If a man who has been granted the legal right to live in Britain – but who isn’t a British citizen – is tortured while in US custody, do we have a right to know that?

If the US government says that publishing details of his treatment “is likely to result in serious damage to US national security and could harm existing intelligence information-sharing arrangements between our two governments”, is the British government right to pass that warning to the High Court?

And is the High Court right to complain that what the US warning amounts to is one democracy expecting a court in another democracy to suppress evidence “relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment”?

Here’s the background: Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian national resident in Britain, was arrested in Pakistan in 2002. He was then transferred to Morocco where he says he was repeatedly tortured. In 2004, he was taken to Guantanamo Bay, where he has been ever since. He was originally charged with having been involved in a plot to launch an attack in the US using a “dirty bomb”; that charge has been dropped, and he currently faces no further charges.

The problem with secrets is that, by definition, we don’t know what they are. Why is the US so keen to prevent this information being made public? Is it because it confirms that Mohamed was tortured, or is it because to release it could jeopardise US intelligence-gathering? Is someone in Washington merely trying to avoid political embarrassment, or are they justifiably worried about compromising sensitive intelligence sources?

It is, like all stories involving anti-terrorism operations, a murky business. But to add to the murk, we need to consider that President Obama has already announced that he intends to close Guantanamo within a year, and has signed an order ending the use of torture by US personnel and the practice of “extraordinary rendition” of suspects to countries that do use torture.

Just last night, the man chosen by Mr Obama to head the CIA, Leon Panetta, said in unambiguous terms: “I believe that water-boarding is torture and it's wrong.” (Water-boarding is an interrogation technique – it simulates the sensation of drowning -- which the Bush administration acknowledged it authorised but which it insisted was not torture.)

So does the Obama administration stand by the previous administration’s warning about the damage to US national security that would be caused by the publication of the Mohamed dossier? All the White House will say is that the administration wants to thank the UK government “for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information", which, it says, will “preserve the long-standing intelligence sharing relationship that enables both countries to protect their citizens.”

I’m sorry about all the unanswered questions this week, but you rarely get answers in stories of this kind. A man who may, or may not, be a dangerous terrorist may, or may not, have been tortured. The Obama administration may, or may not, instruct its intelligence people to drop their objections to the publication of the evidence. It’s been that sort of week.

I’m off to Israel this weekend, not merely to escape the snow, but to prepare to report on the elections on Tuesday. I’ll be on air on Monday, looking ahead to the vote, and we should have exit poll predictions of the result by the time we go on air on Tuesday evening. I hope you’ll be able to tune in.

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