When Binyam Mohamed was returned to Britain in February after nearly five years in the Guantanamo detention camp, his allegations that a British intelligence agent had colluded in his torture overseas rocked the British government. Now, a month later, Attorney General Patricia Schotland has formally directed Scotland Yard to investigate the allegations. Not satisfied, a spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats is demanding an independent judicial inquiry in his words “to ensure that trust in government and international respect for Britain is restored.”
Contrast the events in Britain with the muted reaction in the United States in the past two weeks to the most compelling evidence to date that the Central Intelligence Agency systematically tortured high-level al Qaeda captives while held in secret prisons overseas. The evidence comes from a two-year old report by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), which interviewed the 14 prisoners after they were transferred to Guantanamo in September 2006. The report, leaked to University of California journalism professor Mark Danner, explicitly concluded that the interrogation techniques “constituted torture” and “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” both violations of the Geneva Conventions governing treatment of wartime captives.
Granted, the allegations of torture are hardly new. Human rights groups, lawyers for prisoners, and journalists have been documenting the abusive techniques used against suspected terrorists by military and CIA interrogators almost since the opening of the Guantanamo prison camp in January 2002. The Washington Post’s Dana Priest was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her stories in 2005 confirming the existence of the CIA’s secret prisons and casting doubt on the U.S. government’s official denials of torture.
Still, the ICRC report comes, in Danner’s words, with exceptional “authenticity and credibility.” As to its credibility, the ICRC is officially charged under international law with monitoring compliance with the Geneva Conventions. It safeguards its neutrality by keeping its reports confidential, sharing them only with the governments involved. Indeed, the ICRC responded to Danner’s accounts by expressing regret about the disclosures.
As to the authenticity of the report, Danner notes that ICRC representatives obtained detailed and parallel accounts of the interrogations when they interviewed the 14 prisoners separately in December 2006. According to Danner, the ICRC report specifically writes off the possibility that the prisoners fabricated the accounts since they had been isolated from each other.
Given that background, news of the ICRC report might have been expected to produce a surge of outrage, protest, and controversy. Instead, Danner’s articles a full account in the April 9 issue of The New York Review of Books and a condensed op-ed on March 15 in the New York Times seem to have turned into hardly more than a two-day story. A handful of newspapers published editorials calling for an independent investigation. The American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights groups did the same. But one looks in vain for any palpable reaction from the White House, the Justice Department, or Congress.
In the first press briefing after the story broke, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs skirted the only question about the report by noting that President Obama had already changed the rules regarding detainees. Two days later, Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters he was “mindful” of the stories, but evinced little interest, according to the account by Congressional Quarterly’s Keith Perine. Specifically asked whether an investigation was under way, Holder replied, “I wouldn’t say that.”
For his part, CIA Director Leon Panetta is on record opposing any criminal prosecutions of the CIA agents responsible for treatment that according to the ICRC report entailed beatings, denial of solid food, sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, and forced nudity. “I would not support, obviously, an investigation or prosecution of those individuals,” Panetta told the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 26. While pledging to cooperate with the committee’s investigation, Panetta said he believed the agents “did their job . . .pursuant to the guidance that was provided them, whether you agreed or disagreed with it.”
In Britain, Binyam Mohamed is taking a similar view of the MI5 agent who, according to his account, fed questions and information to Pakistani officials during his captivity in 2002 and who, he surmises, must have known he was being tortured. “I'm very pleased that an inquiry is taking place,” Mohamed said in a statement issued by his lawyers on March 26. But, Mohamed added, “I feel very strongly that we shouldn't scapegoat the little people or blame Witness B [the unnamed agent]-- he was only following orders.”
Danner’s op-ed in the Sunday Times hit breakfast tables just as former Vice President Dick Cheney was telling CNN’s John King on “State of the Union” that the Obama administration was making the United States less safe by abandoning the Bush administration’s anti-terror policies. As Danner points out, however, the evidence of torture creates an apparent dilemma for keeping the al Qaeda 14 in captivity. The torture will taint and possibly jeopardize any prosecutions, but as Danner concedes many of them likely have “blood on their hands.” The Obama administration, Danner writes, is “haunted” by what its predecessor did. So, he might have added, are we all.